Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind has just turned 29. That’s the same amount of time between the trio’s sophomore album and the release of the Beatles’ seemingly prehistoric debut, Please Please Me. Feeling old yet? I, like most decades-old beings, have aged terribly: my cover’s all bent and there are tea stains all over my inner sleeve, but has Nirvana’s baby covered album faired any better?
It’s worth remembering, if you’re old enough to, what the musical landscape looked like in 1991. This was an age where dinosaurs still roamed the earth: MichaelBoltonosaurs vied with CliffRichardodocuses for top 10 dominance whilst the ThreeTenorsourus Rex’s roared their way to massive chart success unbeknownst to the fact that alternative music’s destructive asteroid was about to wipe them off the face of the earth. It would be a hefty rock in the shape of Nirvana.
Nevermind remains one of those rare and surprisingly ‘perfect’ pop moments. With barely a spare second across its thirteen tracks (12 on vinyl, with a secret track on the CD—’Nameless Endless’), the songs range from blistering punk to out of tune folk. They display all the elements of something niche and uncommercial but instead display a rapidly maturing melodicist in Kurt Cobain.
He looked, played and sang like he was being burnt alive, but he wrote like Paul McCartney in a bad mood. Its Butch Vig produced pop-sheen may have aged it a touch, but the songs are timeless. Here, we rank them in order.
Ranking Nevermind from worst to best:
13. ‘Nameless Endless’
The sound of Kurt Cobain stubbing his toe and bursting into flames as Krist Novoselic tunes his bass down 28 semitones into Hell. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad song but in the context of one of the seminal albums of the decade, if not the century, it falls flat.
If there is such a thing on Nevermind, this track is disposable.
12. ‘Territorial Pissings’
Full of cleanly recorded DI’d guitar distortion and rage, ‘Pissings’ highlights Kurt’s development as a songwriter. By 1991, even when writing in the idiom of detachment and paranoia, Kurt Cobain was incapable of producing anything but sparkling melody. Had this been written a year before, it would have been a dirge of heavy riffs. His anger now had a voice.
There aren’t many writers/performers who could make this screamed pair of couplets into a hummable ditty: “When I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions/ Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman.”
A key ingredient to the song’s success, though undeniably one of the slightest tracks the band ever recorded post-Bleach, is the addition of Dave Grohl’s powerhouse drumming. For all Cobain’s talent, Nirvana would have been significantly less impressive, and, in fact, were, without the future Foo Fighter’s power and grace around a kit.
11. ‘Stay Away‘
If there’s a soundbite to be had about ‘Stay Away’ it is simpler to think of the song as ‘Territorial Pissings’’ better-looking sister. The song has the same message—go away and stay there. But it’s delivered in a slightly different way.
Initially called ‘Pay To Play’, it was repurposed and repackaged to warn a potentially new audience and newfound popularity that this man simply wasn’t for sale. Aware that he was becoming an iconic commodity, Kurt Cobain wanted to make the message defy interpretation. Savage and simple, simply stay the fuck away.
10. ‘Something In The Way’
Recorded on a four string charity shop guitar on a run through for Butch Vig, the band spent more time than apparently necessary de-tuning their instruments to match the feel and sorrow expressed in this stripped-down performance. Not to be mistaken for James Taylor’s song of the same name, ‘Something in the Way’ is a love song to solitude.
Kurt professed to be literally living under a Washington State bridge after being made homeless by both sets of Grandparents following his parents’ divorce. But this song is most likely self-mythologising from Cobain, using metaphor to express his feeling of isolation, and finding beauty in unlikely places. Stark beauty ending an album of passionate fury, there was something happening with this 23-year-old, and the world was on tenterhooks to see the next instalment.
With still eight more songs to go, we’re already at pop-masterpiece territory, so buckle up, we’re about to upset some fans as not all your favourites can make it to the top.
Like most bands’ best song, ‘Breed’ (originally titled ‘Imodium’ after the constipation medication) releases the valve of pressure and sprays savagely played pop music all over us. There’s little point in trying to interpret Kurt’s lyrics, they’re so obtuse as to rightly be considered artistic nonsense, but the attack of the bass and drums makes for an electric mix of intent and melody.
It’s Kurt Cobain being silly, and I’m all for it. A banger.
8. ‘Come As You Are’
The moment Nirvana’s sound crept out from beneath America’s underground. The chorus laden guitar riff was a nod to ’80s pop and a sound he’d use liberally across all of Nevermind, Kurt was now writing accessible songs your Dad could sing.
The video was the 1990s distilled into a concentrate so strong, a single drop could kill all members of Aerosmith at once. The lyric is a call to all those who found themselves at the fringes of American/Western society to join in, be themselves and swing from a chandelier. One of Cobain’s first denials of gun ownership and arguably one of the band’s most widely-cherished songs.
7. ‘On A Plain’
Unabashed, straight-up pop music. Cobain was shedding melody as effortlessly as a butterfly sheds its cocoon, emerging as something else entirely. His mother, upon hearing Nevermind on cassette before being released, broke down in tears. “You better buckle up, ‘cos you are not ready for this,” she replied when hearing it for the first time.
Kurt was writing about getting high (as if heroin were pot) and hurting himself, but singing with a smile and a wink. Always cynical and sarcastic, it’s easy to take him too literally or not at all, but he had a plan from 14 years old to be the world’s biggest rock star and then throw it all away. With ‘On A Plain’ he was warning us, years before the event. That it made great pop music is its own reward.
Alternative music’s ‘Wonderwall’. This is the song all the interesting boys play on guitars at parties and we can completely see why.
This is one of those songs that stops you in your tracks upon first hearing it, but suffers from diminishing returns. You end up happily singing along with a sex offender, laughing about chasing a girl through a field after letting her escape for sport.
Cobain’s lyrics were often so cryptic that some of the more direct ones could slip past you unnoticed, but this one sticks out like a sore thumb. Beautiful writing that would be clumsy and insensitive in anyone else’s hands, it was these kinds of songs that even saw Bob Dylan pay attention to Cobain’s words, proclaiming, “the kid has heart.”
5. ‘Drain You’
One of Kurt Cobain’s favourite Nirvana songs, and possessor of one of the greatest drops in popular music. Fitting, because it’s about possession and a kind of parasitic love. ‘Drain You’ is a lighter, more tuneful precursor of ‘Milk It’ from the third album, In Utero, which revisits a similar theme from a much darker corner.
Known for its blistering live performances, this represents everything that was peak commercial Nirvana. Deceptively light with dark undertones; furious and brilliant. A good clue to just how great a rock song is, falls at your feet when the acoustic version of the song is just as impressive as the plugged-in one. Here’s a rarely heard MTV Nirvana Unplugged version of ‘Drain You’ to prove our point.
4. ‘In Bloom‘
Aware of his growing popularity and more aware of the hypocrisy of the type of people that began to show up to Nirvana shows, Kurt loved to poke a finger at the Jocks and Jockettes that constituted part of his new fanbase. Here now were the gun-toting rednecks, ignorant to the foundations of his world view and swaying their heads to the songs he was writing about the isolation that, he felt, they forced upon him.
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs/ And likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun/ But he knows not what it means,” sings Cobain, taking aim at the newfound fans who had begun making their underground shows feel like surface-level crap.
Again, through his frustration and anger came melodic writing that would make Neil Finn blush. This is nothing but a stone cold classic pop song.
3. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The song I blame for all my early and entirely unsuccessful attempts at being a rock star. Riff ripped from ‘More Than A Feeling’ and ‘Loui Loui’, surely a non-accidental nod to all the bands he didn’t want to be in, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hurtled the band into the mainstream. Picked up by everyone and everything, the song may be more famous than the band now, in 2020. But the biggest doesn’t mean the best.
It is a monster though: a songwriting masterclass in dynamics, performance and recording. Drums that kick your ears in and a bass line so hooky that Mr & Mrs Hook named their son Peter after it—it was destined to be a smash hit from the moment it was written. Kurt knew it too, and disowned it as soon as it was released claiming it a Pixies rip-off, though he continued to play it live, a nice example is seen below.
That it was better than anything the Pixies ever did (and I love the Pixies) says everything about the vein of form Cobain was in during this phase of his career. Arranged by Novoselic and Grohl, it is Nevermind’s only Cobain-Novoselic-Grohl credited song.
2. ‘Lounge Act’
Written about Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Kurt’s girlfriend before that girlfriend, ‘Lounge Act’ is every amateur singer/guitarist/frontman’s worst nightmare. Written with a simple three chord structure, it’s simplicity is its secret weapon.
A melody so lovely, and so progressively attacked, it deceives you into thinking you can perform it until Kurt goes up a key and his wild vocal abandon leaves you screaming out of key into a microphone wishing you’d decided to learn the bass. OK, this is from personal experience, but Cobain’s performance on this wonderfully simple song is of the type that his reputation hangs.
Had he lived beyond 27, I often wonder if he’d have been able to maintain this throat-ripping, in tune, screaming. Looking at someone like Liam Gallagher, it’s unlikely, but this performance secures his reputation as one of rock’s great emoters. This isn’t just a scream, it’s something pulled from the soul. Vocal take alone puts this song in the pantheon of great Nirvana tracks, but the all-round performance, melody and arrangement put it firmly in a Godlike tier of pop-rock.
About as perfect a description of manic depression as I’ve heard put into song, ‘Lithium’ is amongst the most rousing and affecting songs Nirvana have ever released.
Lyrically it is some of Cobain’s finest work: “I’m so lonely, that’s OK, I shaved my head and I’m not sad/ And just maybe, I’m to blame for all I’ve heard, but I’m not sure/ I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there, and I don’t care/ I’m so horny, that’s OK my will is good.”
At 4 minutes and 17 seconds, its epic scope and range of emotion make it feel twice the length and ten times the size. Sad, angry, funny. All utterly convincingly. Again, utilising the Pixies quiet/loud dynamic seen in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but to greater effect—this is a pop song of truly breathtaking quality. Due in large part to Butch Vig’s production, Nirvana sound every inch the ‘biggest band in the world’ here.
A vocal performance that defies imitation, Cobain demonstrates an ability to emote and stay in tune whilst singing with astonishingly reckless abandon. I can only think of one other band who uses the word ‘Yeah’ so effectively, and that’s high praise indeed.